On being sexually assaulted, and the last 4 weeks.

I was in Brussels at a press event 4 weeks ago. The company took us out for drinks after the conference. My phone and all my cards got stolen out of my jacket pocket while I went to collect a drink at the crowded bar, so I went outside to contact my bank and phone company to cancel everything. I came back in, and a guy I had never spoken to approached me. He was a member of the delegation — I’d noticed he was part of the remaining 20 or so of us — and he introduced himself by expressing sympathy for me losing my phone.

“Ah worse things can happen!”, I joyfully exclaimed. I had, after all, had a fab day out with some cracking fellow journalists, and was super proud of myself for not freaking out at the loss of my third arm. “How’d it happen?”, he asked me. I showed him my left jacket pocket: “It would’ve been so easy for them to put their hand in and take it!”

He then put his hand into my jacket pocket, and used it as a conspicuous glove to grab repeatedly at my vagina, my left hip and then my buttocks.

“You’re right, it would’ve been easy to put their hand in,” he said.

I froze, not quite believing what was happening, and backed away. When I told the PR rep, she told me he was a freelance designer and creative director — also based in London — who was working with the company I was there to cover.

I went back to the hotel not long after that, totally perplexed about what had happened, already scolding myself for ‘all the things’ I shouldn’t have done.

It wasn’t really until the next morning — after I told my boyfriend over the phone — that I started to really feel the effects.

I felt so many things. I felt confused that I’d ‘allowed’ it to happen. I felt angry I hadn’t yelled, and I felt angry I wasn’t angry enough. I felt dirty, so so so dirty. But I couldn’t understand why I felt so dirty considering he touched me through my clothes. I felt frustrated that I couldn’t go about my day. I felt dread around knowing I had another thing to have to deal with, on top of the rest of my busy life. I felt worried about what people would think — would they believe me, would they think I was just looking for attention, would they think when I inevitably wrote about this that it was just for likes, and that it was gross oversharing? I felt totally at a loss about what I was meant to feel — was I upset enough or was I overreacting; was I thinking too much about it or was I thinking too little; was I ready to leave the hotel room and ‘get on’ with my day or was that too much of a ‘sweeping it under the carpet’ kind of move?

All of those feelings poured out of me — within about 20 minutes — because some prick felt entitled enough to do what he wanted within 5 minutes of meeting a woman.

(Bear in mind the only thing he knew about this woman is that she had lost her phone and all her money in a city that wasn’t her home.)

So it’s been 4 weeks now since I was sexually assaulted.

I’ve filed a formal statement with the UK police, who have forwarded it onto the Belgian police to investigate. The UK police have been so kind, but have told me unfortunately there’s little they can do without concrete proof, and since it’s outside their jurisdiction. Which I understand, and accept to an extent. His name is recorded on a database in the UK as someone who has been reported against. I know that legally there is nothing else I can do.

I’ve also filed a formal complaint with the company he works for. They have been less kind in the way they’ve communicated with me — I could write an entire article on how poorly they’ve dealt with the matter, but I’m not sure I have the energy right now. They finally got back to me 4 days ago to notify me of their decision to terminate their relationship with this guy by removing him permanently from their freelance roster. They will be writing a letter to him this week to notify him, which they have promised I will be forwarded.

But that’s not really the story. That’s simply the narrative.

I have spent 4 weeks worrying about how I should feel.

I have spent 4 weeks getting defensive and feeling desperately frustrated every time someone I’ve told asked me if I was drunk.

I have spent 4 weeks completely unable to attribute my emotions to anything: “is my desire to lie in bed all day down to the fact I was sexually assaulted, or am I just generally having a breakdown because I’ve taken on too much work this month?”

I have spent 4 weeks having to stop myself repeatedly thinking ‘it wasn’t rape Gemma, pull yourself together’. (Note to those also thinking this: if someone was burgled, you wouldn’t say to them ‘oh well at least you weren’t murdered’.)

I have spent 4 weeks feeling so impatient about not being able to do all the things I want to do — not being able to work at my usual pace; not being able to do all those awesome projects I had lined up to start; not being able to just be happy and fun for my boyfriend, friends and family.

I have spent 4 weeks going back and forth and forwards and backwards and left and right about whether I should ‘just move on’; whether I should name and shame the guy and the company; whether I should press charges; whether I should phone Rape Crisis (it really is the place you go to even if you’ve not been raped — which doesn’t help with the aforementioned feeling); whether or not I should speak publicly about what happened…

I have spent 4 weeks as a shadow of Gemma Milne, as a meek person struggling so hard to work out how to feel, as someone who is enveloped in a heavy blanket and who’s followed everywhere by a stormy black cloud.

But I’m starting to feel a lot better.

And I’ve realised that — out of all the women out there who get sexually assaulted at some point in their life — I am in possibly the best position.

  • I’m believed
  • I’m educated enough to write strongly worded emails to companies
  • I have ridiculously good support around me — my boyfriend, my family, my friends and those I work with who I’ve told
  • I have enough money in my pocket to not worry about bullishly working for a month
  • I’m a freelancer so I’ve had a flexible schedule for calls, emails and crying
  • I know the guy’s name
  • I know the company who he works for and hence I had someone to complain to
  • I was kindly and gently encouraged by those around me to report him (even though I thought it would be totally pointless, and had they not been so reassuring, I probably wouldn’t have)
  • I knew to call Samaritans, and felt very comfortable doing so (I used to be a Samaritan so it didn’t scare me)
  • I have a voice that I know will be heard

And so one of the things that has made this last 4 weeks even harder, is knowing that SO. MANY. WOMEN. DON’T. HAVE. THIS.

I now finally understand why so many women don’t report.

I now finally understand why so many women cannot cope.

I now finally understand why so many women feel totally helpless as a result of sexual assault.

Because even with everything I have, I was one of those women at many points over the last 4 weeks.

I’m not completely clear yet on why I wanted to write this all down to share with the world. Is it about awareness, is it about solidarity, is it about standing up for something, is it about feeling better?

It’s probably a combination of all of those.

I have no idea how to solve the problem we have in society where some men think behaviour like this is ok, and I know that it will continue (heck, the guy who did it to me will most likely do it again).

I just hope that by talking openly about it, maybe some people will think a little differently, a little more kindly, with a little more understanding, next time they come into contact with sexual assault.

I hope that something in this has resonated, or changed your mind, or made you feel a little bit better if you are going though something similar.

And I hope that more women feel able to do exactly what I am doing now— taking the power back, knowing 100% that it is not my fault, and moving on armed with a belly even more full of fire.